Software Review: Band-in-a-Box

By Paul Moffett

How would you like to have a little three-piece rhythm section to back you up, a band that could play a wide variety of songs, including yours, at any tempo, in a variety of styles and play it as many times as you would like, in any key, without complaint? Sounds like heaven, you say?

Musicians who have been staying on the front end of the MIDI revolution already know what this is like. My friend Charlie works with an impressive collection of electronic equipment, including sequencers, sound modules, keyboards, wires, racks, etc., that he calls "The Silicon Valley Boys." He's spent many thousands of dollars on this equipment and even more thousands of hours on the songs he performs. Getting them ready to play requires four to eight hours per song. Charlie "sequences" all the different parts, including bass, drums, piano, additional guitar and the other little trimmings of the arrangements. He has accumulated quite a few songs this way and, as a result, works regularly, singing and pickin' the guitar while the "Silicon Valley Boys" play back-up.

Well, as the ads say, now, you, too, can have that back-up band at the touch of a finger with Band-In-A-Box, from PG Music.

The literature for Band-in-a-Box describes it as "intelligent music accompaniment software," which is somewhat overblown, but not terribly so. Written by Peter Gannon, the software is designed for use with IBM-compatible machines using an MPU 401 card; the Atari ST (520/1040) and Macintosh with 512K of memory, plus a MIDI keyboard with bass, drum and piano sounds..

The software works like this: the chord progression for a song is loaded into the program, which then generates parts for drums, bass and piano. These parts are sent via MIDI to the synthesizer and drum machine to be played.

Entering chords for a song is simple, fortunately, as the documentation which comes with the program can best be described as thin. The screen presents the user with a series of measures, with each measure split into two parts. Each half-measure can have one or two chords entered into it. Chords can also be written with root notes other than those normally associated with the chord. This allows for a simple bass line to be written over a chord progression.

The program will also transpose in a flash, a feature which can be useful in a perverse way: the designated 'key' might or might not be the key in which the progression is written. For instance, the progression might be substantially in the key of 'C', while the 'key' the software uses might be 'G' or 'F' or, for that matter, 'Ab'.

Songs may be played in any one of twenty-four 'styles', which range from jazz swing to pop ballad to country to waltz to 'ethnic' - Gannon's term for polka. Version Four allows for the creation of user-defined styles, as well as editing of some of the on-board styles. This feature is worth a whole set of articles later.

Drum patterns are associated with the 'styles', but some variations are possible within a song, providing drum fills leading to chord changes. Version Four allows changes of style and tempo within an individual song.

The package comes with a 'fakebook' of five hundred chord progressions, named by a song which uses them. There are no melody lines or lyrics.

All songs can be saved as standard MIDI files, so that further editing can be done in other sequencing programs such as Cakewalk 3.0 or Voyetra. SP1. MIDI channels can be assigned for each instrument.

Version Four has several interesting new features. The program has been rewritten to allow the user to change both styles and tempo in the middle of the song. In fact, style and tempo can be changed in every measure. Lyrics can also be added in Version Four.

I am running the software on an XT clone, the volkscomputer of the DOS world, with a Casio HT 3000 synthesizer and a Roland TR 505 drum machine. The synthesizer can be split into two sections, allowing the software to play the bass part on one section and the piano part on the other, each with its own sound. The synthesizer also has drum sounds, but the Roland drum machine is superior.

The first song I entered was an Eagles tune, from a fakebook. This took about fifteen minutes, not a particularly long time considering that I was learning how to use the program at the same time. Entering my own tunes took longer, as I had to figure out the measure length for each chord. This in itself is a plus for the package, as it means I now have chord charts for my tunes. Prior to this, I seldom worked out those charts, as I perform solo.

The fakebook is one of the most interesting parts of the package. It is great fun to load up one of the more complex tunes, such as "Giant Steps," and play along (or try to play along). The cursor highlights the half-measure being played, so that practice is greatly facilitated. I expect to improve my guitar playing a lot.

This feature is promoted as a boon to vocalists, although it might be difficult to perform out 'live' with this program. I say this because the program 'generates' the parts for each song as it is played, so there is always a significant time lag at the beginning of every tune. This could be overcome easily enough by converting the tunes to MIDI files and playing them in sequencers which use fixed song forms, but most buyers of this software are not likely to use it for that purpose.

For songwriters, this software, or other software like it, is the answer to many of the problems songwriters encounter, particularly getting demos done at a reasonable rate. Band-in-a-Box makes it possible for anyone with even a modicum of musical knowledge to make usable demos of new tunes and for cheap. In fact, it should also stimulate writers to write new tunes: type in a progression and lit it play around and around while you write lyrics over it.

This software also screams out for informal SIGs (Special interest groups): mostly for trading styles and/or song charts.

There may be other software like this out in the great American marketplace, but I haven't seen it yet. There will be some, no doubt, as the fundamental idea is too good for the field to be left to PG software.